Defensive back is a very broad position area. There are cover corners, Cover-2 corners, nickel corners, strong safeties, and free safeties. At a minimum, teams play four defensive backs in base defenses.
Most NFL offenses play a lot of three- or four-wide receiver packages, which means the nickel corner plays more than a front-seven defender. It's common for the third corner on a team to play 65 percent of the plays. A number of teams have gone to a "big nickel" package with three safeties on the field, especially if the tight end is a vertical threat and the running back has real receiver skills.
Nowadays, defensive backs must have blitz skills to pressure the quarterback. With the constant growth of the spread offense in the NFL, the more these defensive backs are put on islands and have to be able to cover man for man.
Many teams carry 10 defensive backs, which is 19 percent of the entire roster, and as Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said to me recently, "Rex (Ryan) likes to activate 10 defensive backs at times."
This is not a strong draft for defensive backs, and the first two rounds should only produce 10 to 11 players. LSU's Patrick Peterson is the headliner, and he has significant space between himself and the rest of the group.
Player with most upside
Peterson appears to be an instant starter and star. He has the build of a big safety, the speed of the fastest corner and the return skills of a top player. NFL people compare him to Charles Woodson, and that means he could be a regular in the Pro Bowl. NFL offenses are all headed toward 40 pass attempts a game, so you better have athletes like Peterson in the secondary. I could see 10 years at corner and another three to four at safety before this 21-year-old calls it a career.
Biggest boom-or-bust prospect
Nebraska's Prince Amukamara is penciled in as the second-best corner to Peterson, but he didn't even have an interception in 2010. He is a solid player but will get tested early by teams that know what formations will isolate him. He has had some issues with stop-and-go-type routes in which he bites on the first part of the route. Amukamara is confident and mentally tough, so he has what it takes to weather the storm, and for most young corners it's from the neck up that gets tested right away. If Amukamara goes to a team that needs him to match the top receiver it could be a tough rookie season. I have interviewed him twice, and he appears to have the mental makeup to get through the hard times.
My favorite sleeper(s)
People will tell you North Carolina's Kendric Burney is too small and too slow to play in the NFL. I saw a lot more out of him at the Senior Bowl than a slow short guy. He has very good anticipation skills, is more quick than fast. As a solid Cover-2 corner who knows how to jump routes, Burney had managed 11 college interceptions. Keep your eye on the team that takes him, which probably comes in the fifth round.
As for safeties, Iowa's Tyler Sash is a heady player who will come up and hit you, but also performs solid in coverage. He does a good job of reading the quarterback's eyes and has more range than his 4.66 40-yard dash time would suggest.
Players with most to prove
Texas' Aaron Williams goes back and forth between a first- and second-round grade. He had a much better pro day than combine when it came to running fast, but he also didn't have an interception in 2010. If he goes in the first round, there is a microscope on him right away. If he lasts until the second round, Williams will be considered a steal.
UCLA's Rahim Moore might be the first real safety to come off the board. He sure looks the part but has to improve his open-field tackling. After collecting 10 interceptions in 2009, Moore came back in 2010 and had one pick in 12 starts.
Small-school prospect with a chance
Davon House played at New Mexico State and has been rising up draft boards for a month. He probably won't make the first round, but he looks like a solid second-round selection. House has size and man-coverage skills. He's raw and needs technique work, but might be well worth it.
At the safety position, keep an eye on Appalachian State free safety Mark Legree. He was invited to the combine after intercepting 22 passes in college. At the combine, Legree ran 4.5 in the 40 and 4.1 in the short shuttle.
Debunking a myth
Many people think the third corner covers the slot receiver. Not true. Often the third corner comes in the game and plays outside while the crafty veteran goes in on the slot. Charles Woodson heads into the slot when the Packers are in nickel defense. The slot corner has to be a good blitzer, as well as cover slot receivers such as Wes Welker.
Teams with the greatest need
If your favorite team keeps 10 defensive backs on its roster, then that team is on the list for a need in the secondary. Basically all 32 teams need a defensive back, but here are the teams looking early in this draft: Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Oakland, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle.